Stories that Stick

When I was a kid, my dad read me this poem out of a book.  You’ve probably heard it before.  The opening line goes, “One bright day in the middle of the night, two dead men got up to fight.” Ringing any bells? I thought so.

The thing that really stuck with me about that poem, was the fact that everything stuck with me about that poem.  I’m not kidding.  After hearing it one time I was able to recite it back verbatim.  Now, I’m no memory wizz.  Far from it.  In fact it took me nearly two months to learn my new address after the last time I moved.  But that one little ditty has stuck in my mind like glue to this day.

Why?  Well, you can probably give some of the credit to the rhyming scheme.  It’s always easier to remember poetry than prose.  But I’ve tried and I still can’t get past memorizing the first few lines of “She walks in beauty like the night,” so there must be something deeper at work here.

I think the answer is in the nature of the poem itself.  It’s all about opposites.  Night and day, dead and alive, etc.  It’s the contrast between the concepts that makes the poem memorable.  Or to put it another way, opposites stick.

Why should you care? Because as a writer, you’re going to need to make something stick in your readers’ minds; you’re going to want to create characters and situations that will linger long after they’ve finished the book.

Great fiction from all eras of literature makes use of this principle.  Take a look at some examples off the top of my head.

Harry Potter: a boy goes to a school (boooring) to learn to become a wizard (awesome!).  If you’ve read the books you know how well J. K. Rowling combines the boring and familiar elements of school with the fantastical elements of the wizarding world.  And it sticks.

Dexter: A serial killer (evil) works to bring other killers to gruesome justice (goodish). Of course there are other great things about the show, but all the best parts focus on Dexter trying to find the balance between the evil inside him and the mission for good he has taken for himself.  And it sticks.

Robin Hood: A thief (bad) works to bring about social justice (good).  And that one has stuck for hundreds of years.

Wildclown: A private detective (serious) has to dress like a clown (funny).

Zombies: Do I really need to spell this one out for you guys?

There are all kinds of ways you can apply this principle.  Malcolm Gladwell’s non-fiction books are a complete joy to read because he sets up something everyone takes for granted and then carefully shows why it was wrong.  He gives you the perfect contrast between assumption and reality.  And it sticks.

It can even help you in your blog writing.  For instance you might create a blog that starts off talking about a children’s poem and transitions into talking about creating memorable characters and situations.  And, hopefully, it sticks.

Don’t go overboard with it.  You really don’t want to end up with zombie-pirate-ninja-robots in your story.  No, no, you don’t.  I see that gleam in your eye, and it isn’t going to work.  It would be completely ridiculous story, don’t be a fool. Don’t….no don’t you open that word processor.  Come baaaack!

Okay, well for those that are left, I was trying to say that what you need to do is create one memorable thing for your story, one kernel you’re going to wrap this concept of contrast around.  It can be a character, it can be the story world, it can even be an integral part of the way the book is plotted.

It doesn’t have to be complex.  In fact I would argue that when it comes to contrast, simpler is better.  And if you do your job right you’ll create something that will stay with your readers long after they’ve finished the last chapter.

Create that kernel of contrast, and your work will stick for years to come.

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8 responses to “Stories that Stick

  1. Thanks for the great post. It is sound advice indeed.

    http://timkeen40.wordpress.com

  2. Zombie-pirates vs. ninja-robots, that’s the plot of my next novel. Except one of the zombie-pirate wenches falls in love with a ninja-robot prince. It’s a modern-day something-or-other Romeo and Juliet!

    Really, though, good thoughts. I don’t typically think about contrast in my stories this way; I should go back and look for it.

  3. Excellent points! It’s all about taking those common story themes and ideas and giving them your own little unique twist, or contrast like you said. This is something to remember as I work on WIP.

  4. I found this post entertaining. Somehow, it’s true. Now, let’s add more stuff to the mix.

    Twilight–A vampire (predator) falls in love with a human (prey).

    Princess Diaries–a fourteen-year-old teenager (ordinary) discovers that she is a princess (extraordinary).

    Avatar–the mercenary learns the value of nonvaluable things.

    Terminator–the killer robot (bad) becomes the savior (good).

  5. Thought provoking and entertaining post! Didn’t NaNoWriMo, or InBoWriLuCy, talk about pirate ninja sci-fi being a genre? lol. You’re right, though, many of the greats had to overcome this duality before the denoument!

  6. Interesting observations on those premises…you got my brain working, even after 8 hours of writing today! 🙂

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